Knowing a little about dairy farming in Maine, and also about the market for organic and upscale agricultural products in Maine and Vermont, among the tourists as well as the wealthier transplants, I asked him whether he had considered selling raw milk and bypassing the co-op. He said he had thought about it, but even though the laws about selling raw milk are not as strict in Vermont as they are in Maine, he didn’t think he could make a living that way either. As he explained the economics-driven unsustainability of his dairy enterprise, we looked out onto his pasture, and the land seemed better for agriculture than what I’m used to in my part of Maine. I supposed that a young couple, just starting out on that land, might have decided to grow organic vegetables here; but this was a dairy farmer in his 50s and it had been a dairy farm for three generations. He added that many other dairy farmers in that area were coming to the same conclusion, and that his kind of dairy farming, which was relatively small scale, was no longer sustainable in a state that is known as much for milk as maple syrup.
After we heard the farmer’s story, we took a walk along his woods road, led by a local forester, who told us about his own life and how he grew up in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State, and how after a series of unsatisfying jobs he eventually decided that he needed to work in the woods, and so he became a forester of the sort who hires himself out as a consultant, sometimes to timber harvesters, sometimes to local landowners who want to be good stewards. He was more satisfied working with the landowners, he said. He spoke about his interest in Thoreau, who toward the end of his life had written about preserving the Walden woods. Thoreau wrote that every town ought to preserve some forest land and, indeed, many towns in New England eventually did so. When I began college teaching many years ago, we lived in Reading, Massachusetts, right next to the town forest, where I spent many hours walking and gathering—not nuts and berries, but thoughts and ideas.
The forester also mentioned some Europeans who had been interested in forest preservation during the late 18th and early 19th century. Thoreau himself was most familiar with the forest preserves in England that were managed as parks rather than set aside as wilderness. Thoreau would have contrasted these with wilderness such as he encountered in the most isolated parts of the Maine woods, where he took three trips in the mid-1800s with a Native American guide, Joe Polis, and wrote about his journeys. Thoreau, whose writing is usually classified as pastoral, that middle landscape between wilderness and civilization, placed the highest value on wildness—“in wildness is preservation of the world,” he wrote in his essay on “Walking.” And so we walked on through the farmer’s woods trail, a pastoral scene, learning from the forester about the trees and good forest management for the small landholder—thinning the stands, for example, and cutting paths, providing different habitats for all the creatures that dwell thereabouts; for the health of the forest, as culture, is in diversity.